“A Whisper Will Be Heard”: Babel, the Wake and Echoes of Sukkkot

What went wrong at Babel, and how might the situation be redeemed? One answer, I think, is to be found in a whisper still reverberating from our shaky sukkot and the rustling of the lulav.

In the Place Where We Are Right

Just before Sukkot, I developed a kavanah [intention] for waving the lulav with a focus on communication. While lulav season has passed, the state of political discourse in the U.S. and Israel — which inspired the kavanah — has not. Nor, I’m guessing, have most of us mastered the art of balancing openness and discernment in listening to others. So, I share here, a little late, the basics of the lulav intention:

  • Begin with the etrog’s flower-producing pittom pointing downward.

    From the place where we are right
    Flowers will never grow
    In the spring.

    The place where we are right
    Is hard and trampled
    Like a yard.
    — from “The Place Where We Are Right” by Yehuda Amichai
    translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell
    The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.
    New York: Harper & Row, 1986, p.34.

  • Aware of the palm branch [lulav], we awaken our “spines,” our central strength; we acknowledge fellow citizens who take a stand, whether we agree with their stand or not, toward a vision of common good.
  • Aware of the willow [aravah], we awaken our “mouths,” our ability to communicate by voice, hand or type; we acknowledge the precious gift of communications from others, the 99% and the 1%, about their circumstances, their needs, offerings and hopes.
  • Aware of the myrtle [hadas], we awaken our “eyes,” our ability to receive through whichever channels are available to us; we acknowledge our responsibility to remain open to others’ thoughts and experiences while also exercising discernment.
  • Aware of the citron [etrog], we awaken our “hearts,” our source of connection; we acknowledge our inter-dependence and the importance of standing, expressing ourselves and learning from others.
  • Once the blessing is recited, the etrog is turned right-side-up.

    But doubts and loves
    Dig up the world
    Like a mole, a plow.
    And a whisper will be heard in the place
    Where the ruined
    House once stood.
    –conclusion of “The Place Where We Are Right”

  • Extend your awareness beyond yourself by waving or shaking your hands, with their produce, in each direction – front, right, back, left, up and down – out and in, three times. As you do so, concentrate on
    ➢ gratitude to YHVH, That On Which All Depends,
    ➢ gathering strength from The Source of All, and
    ➢ calling on The Saving Power to unite us for the common good at this shakiest of seasons.

A version of this meditation, “Occupy the Lulav,” is available at Open Siddur. Due to copyright issues, Open Siddur could not include the Amichai poem. I cannot offer a Creative Commons Share-Alike license to material that is not mine. I do, however, have some thoughts to share on the poem, in conjunction with parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32).

The Disaster of Babel

With each year’s Torah reading, I am struck, if not exactly surprised, by how quickly — and deeply — the God-human enterprise goes wrong. The first Torah portion, Breishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8), read last week, concludes with God “regretting” the creation of humans and preparing to “blot them out” from the face of the earth. The second portion, Noach, describes that blotting out and the subsequent re-peopling of the earth through Noah’s offspring. Amid that tale and the associated genealogies is the story of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9), another apparent disaster.

What went wrong at Babel?

Ancient midrash, Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer, relates that in their focus on building, people failed to grieve when fellow laborers fell to their deaths but wept over dropped bricks. The 19th Century commentator Naftali Zevi Yehuda Berlin (1818-1893, AKA Netziv), posits that the people’s insistence on “devarim ahadim” (Gen. 11:1) — translated here as “one speech” — led them to kill anyone who did not subscribe to their collective’s “one idea.” The contemporary scholar Judy Klitsner reads both of these texts as extreme examples of choosing uniformity over individuality.

In her book Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other (Jerusalem: Maggid Books/Koren, 2011), Klitsner writes:

One aspect of the people’s rebellion against God lies in their attempts at effacing the individual. Their attempts constitute a negation of God’s plan for humanity to be unique as God is unique. But there is another facet to their mutiny. By quashing freedom of thought, the tower builders preclude any human-divine engagement….

The defining lines of the Babel narrative are purposefully blurred. The text’s ambiguity on the question of whether the people sinned against God or against one another points to a complex truth: the people’s suppression of their unique selves lay at the root of their disengagement from God. In tyrannizing one another by extinguishing the divine spark of individuality, the tower builders made standing before God impossible. (p.45)

The citizenry of Babel, as Klitsner understands them, are the epitome of people living in “the place where we are right.”

Redeeming Babel

In a recent study session with DC Beit Midrash, I argued that Finnegans Wake offers a kind of antidote to the disaster of Babel. Here is one part of that argument.

In the Wake, James Joyce told his contemporaries, he hoped to recreate humanity’s pre-Babel language. One of his strategies was to incorporate words from many languages, especially from sacred works. He also wove multiple meanings into each element of the book. The Babel story itself, e.g., is linked in the Wake to the Irish drinking song about wall-building Tim Finnegan’s near-death fall, to the fall of Wall Street (1929, not “OWS”), to Humpty Dumpty and a variety of literary falls, to the plot involving Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker’s moral fall, and to religious ideas of fallenness in the sense of humanity becoming distant from God.

The Wake is intended to resemble a dream, with multiple, sometimes contradictory meanings. This also reflects the arc in Genesis from God’s direct communication with humans — Eve and Adam in the garden, e.g. — to speaking through Joseph’s dreams.

The “one language” of the Wake — like that of the Torah — is never “devarim ahadim” in the sense of being a “single idea.” Instead, it carries the 70 faces: “So you need hardly spell me how every word will be bound over to carry three score and ten toptypsical readings throughout the book of Doublends Jined….” (p.20).

Moreover, writes Joyce, “one who deeper thinks will always bear in the baccbuccus of his mind that his down-right there you are and there it is is only all in his eye.” Even a supposedly simple “there you are” or “there it is” is subject to interpretation. He continues, directly referencing Babel:


Because, Soferim Bebel, if it goes to that (and dormer window gossip will cry it from the housetops no surelier than the writing on the wall will hue it to the mod of men that mote in the main street) every person, place and thing in the chaosmos of Alle anyway connected with the gobblydumped turkery was moving and changing every part of the time: the traveling inkhorn (possibly pot), the hare and turtle pen and paper, the continually more and less intermisunderstanding minds of the anticollaborators, the as time went on as it will variously inflected, differently pronounced, otherwise spelled, changeably meaning vocable scriptsigns….we ought really to rest thankful that at this deleteful hour of dungflies dawning we have even a written on with a dried ink scrap of paper at all to show for ourselves, tare it or leaf it… (p.118)
–James Joyce. NY: Viking, 1939.

Returning to Klitsner’s concept that the error of Babel was to insist on uniform thinking, Finnegans Wake might be a path to redemption: Joyce’s odd literary project simply does not lend itself to uniform thinking; there are too many ways to interpret each word. Finnegans Wake does not offer a place where we are right.

Perhaps even a brief exercise in reading the Wake can — like Amichai’s “doubts and loves,” serving to “dig up the world, like a mole, a plow” — prepare a spot for something new to grow.

Sukkot Reprise

One major theme of Sukkot is fragility. The sukkah’s shaky structure is open to the elements. The lulav, waved throughout the holiday, decays as the week progresses. The major reading for Sukkot is the Book of Ecclesiastes, with it’s “tomorrow we’ll all be dead” motif. The setting, the reading and our actions are reminders that we’re surrounded by forces we don’t control and dependent on one another and God. This is meant to foster humility, gratitude for the harvest and a willingness to share.

Joyce’s caution above — “we ought really to rest thankful that…we have even a written on with a dried ink scrap of paper at all to show for ourselves” — strikes a similar theme. But this time the “harvest” is linguistic. What if we continued the new year with gratitude and humility in the face of any communication? What if we attended to the reverberations of Sukkot as we moved into this year’s new Torah-reading cycle?

And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Here’s a link to the Hebrew and English for “The Place Where We Are Right,” (c) Yehuda Amichai, Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell.

For more on houses, ruined and rebuilt, in Amichai’s poetry, see “Amichai, Zelda and the Pit”.

Published by


Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s